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Notebook Religion

Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP

The choir sings at The Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, Minn. (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP)


Off to a bad restart

The Grove United Methodist Church has not abandoned its elderly members, but it has abandoned Biblical doctrine

The story was sensational. A small, struggling congregation of some 30 elderly attendees is scheduled to close this summer, only to relaunch in the fall with a new, young pastor, new décor, and a new worship style, but without its aging members. Pioneer Press reported that church leaders at the Grove United Methodist Church (UMC) had asked elderly members not to participate in the relaunch and to worship elsewhere for two years before “reapplying” for membership. Accusations of age discrimination followed. Major media picked up the story, painting it as a case of youth-obsessed culture run amok.

The truth is more complicated, but also more sobering.

The Grove boasts two suburban St. Paul, Minn., campuses: the small Cottage Grove congregation, and a large, prosperous Woodbury congregation 15 minutes to the north. The two congregations merged in 2008, but for the past seven years the Cottage Grove campus has been unable to support its own minister. Members of the congregation plan services, provide music, and take turns preaching sermons. Despite past revitalization efforts, the Cottage Grove campus has remained stagnant.

The planned relaunch is designed to attract younger families and to forge an intergenerational ministry. Leaders have asked Cottage Grove members to worship at the Woodbury campus for 15-18 months so the relaunch can “take.” The leaders clarified no current member will be excluded from the relaunch.  They are being asked—not commanded—to give it a chance to succeed.

But it won’t.

In June 2019 the Minnesota Conference of the UMC voted to reject a Biblical view of human sexuality, marriage, and Christian ministry in order to support “the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church.” In a Jan. 5, 2020, sermon, Grove Associate Pastor Kelly Lamon stated that the leaders of the Grove “stand in solidarity” with the decision of the Minnesota Conference.

Theologically liberal Methodists already repudiate substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the plain Biblical witness to the necessity of repentance and the certainty of eternal punishment apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Their current repudiation of Biblical morality further untethers the Grove from historic Christianity. 

In a brief survey of 12 weeks of sermons, including messages from pastors of the Grove and the bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota area, I found not a single reference to repentance, conviction, guilt, law, commandment, the holiness of God, judgment, atonement, or God’s wrath against sin. 

One sermon mentioned sin, but did so while suggesting that Christians too often use light and darkness as metaphors for good and evil, and that by doing so we promote racism against dark-skinned persons. No sermons mentioned eternal life, reconciliation with God, the necessity of forgiveness, obedience, or the cost of discipleship.

The leaders of the Grove might succeed in relaunching the Cottage Grove campus. They might fill the sanctuary with young people. But ultimately they will fail, for they appear committed to withholding the words of eternal life from those who attend.

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Mark Goode

(Mark Goode)


Long time staying

Richard Hornok expected to spend his life in ministry—but not all at one small church in Texas

First in an occasional series on long ministry

Richard Hornok attended Dallas Theological Seminary and planned to become a pastor. Before graduating, he heard about a tiny church plant on the border of Texas and Arkansas, in a city called Texarkana. “It was basically just a little Bible study meeting on Sunday mornings,” he said. Hornok arrived at the church with his newly pregnant wife, Vicki, expecting to stay three or four years before moving on to bigger and better things. 

“We thought we were going to take on Texarkana and show them how it’s done,” he said. “We were as cocky as could be.” Three or four years turned into 35. 

Ministry was harder than Hornok anticipated: The church grew slowly, and some congregants negatively compared him with other potential leaders. Some criticized personal decisions he’d made, such as financing a car and avoiding being alone with any woman not his wife. 

But a few older church members loved and encouraged Hornok and his wife. Several times, when the couple wondered whether to leave, other pastoral positions simply did not open up. Ultimately, they always felt convinced God wanted them to stay. 

Decades of preaching to the same people has kept him sharp. His wife takes meticulous notes in her study Bible, and Hornok said if he changes his position on a passage, she calls him out. He tries to preach new passages to deepen his Biblical knowledge: Last summer it was Obadiah.  

Another benefit to staying at the church has been long, deep relationships. Hornok baptized one man, performed his wedding, attended his children’s births, then years later officiated his wife’s funeral when she died of cancer. Now Hornok meets with the man and his new fiancée to help them prepare for marriage. “If I’d bounced around to other churches, I would have maybe had the experience of doing one of those things,” he said. “I am getting to do all of life with him as his pastor.”

Staying in Texarkana has also earned Hornok the community’s respect. People ask his advice and value his opinion: Once, FBI agents consulted him as they strategized regarding local cult leader Tony Alamo. 

But pastoring the same church for decades comes with challenges. Hornok can’t preach the same way he did in the 1980s: Society has changed, and he needs creativity to communicate and offer relevant applications. He sees people using their smartphones during sermons and knows if he bumbles a Greek term, someone will fact-check him. 

Eight years ago, some disillusioned congregants became enamored with other local churches and asked, “Why can’t we be like them?” Their comments made Hornok wonder if it was time for a change. He interviewed with several churches, but none hired him. 

To Hornok’s surprise, the process helped to reignite his passion for his own church. The other churches’ consideration affirmed his preaching and ministry skills, leading the 61-year-old pastor to conclude, “You can do this, and you can do this well all the way to the end.”

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Miguel Candela Poblacion/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(Miguel Candela Poblacion/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


Threats by text

Harassing text messages attempt to deter Hong Kong Christians’ engagement in the pro-democracy movement

Last August, the night after 26-year-old seminarian Samuel Chau spoke at a large Christian rally on how believers should respond to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, a stranger sent him a message on WhatsApp. The text was filled with profanities, accusations, and threats.

The sender warned Chau against participating in any more prayer meetings and condemned him to hell. When Chau asked if the stranger had contacted the right person, he responded with Chau’s full name and the name of his seminary. (WORLD has given Chau a pseudonym due to the threats against him.)

Since the end of July, about 40 pro-democracy Christians in Hong Kong have received similar messages to their phones and apps attempting to stop them from supporting the protest movement. Many texts included details about the recipients’ families and churches. The protests, which began in June in opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill, have grown into a wider resistance movement against Beijing’s control over the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong.

The Christians who received the texts are affiliated with Alliance Bible Seminary, Flow Church, youth ministry coalition G-Power, and the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Most of the recipients are pastors, seminary students, or Christians who are outspoken on social media.

That August evening, Chau ended up chatting with the stranger for an hour. According to screenshots of the conversation, the man called himself “Lai” and claimed to be a riot police officer and a Christian on a “mad search” for Christians like Chau. Using obscenities, he urged Chau to stop his activities. Lai added that it was a difficult time to be a police officer: He had stopped attending his church, he said, due to mistreatment toward him and his family.

“It was a good conversation, because I learned a lot about the police and what they’re thinking,” Chau said. He invited Lai to his church, but the man remained noncommittal and eventually blocked Chau’s number.

Chau has received anonymous messages on four other occasions. The messages claimed he was anti-government and anti-police, contained death threats (“Your whole family’s gonna die”), and accused him of accepting U.S. funding for anti-communist activities. One message said that because he is Chinese, he shouldn’t criticize China. 

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